The Silent Ark
6: Milky Bar Kidology
One of the most rewarding aspects of my work was the school talks
which I initiated. It was also the stick with which the National
Farmers' Union (NFU) and the Meat & Livestock Commission (MLC)
thought it possible to beat me. But no matter how much they huffed
and puffed about indoctrinating "children", conveniently
ignoring the age range of between 13 and 18, it had little or no
They gave the impression that, somehow, we forced our way into
schools - presumably disguised as dinner ladies - and held classes
forcibly in their seats with Kalashnikovs while we perverted their
minds. What really worried them, of course, and still does is the
effect that discovery has on young people. Decades of cloaking barbarity
with anodyne phrases has not prepared young people for the truth.
It is astounding that they can grow to virtual adulthood and know
almost nothing of how animals are reared and killed. That cannot
When young people witness cruelty to animals they tend not to turn
the other cheek. To them, cruelty is cruelty and they are not ashamed
to show their feelings, their disgust and desire to stop it. Many
adults appear to be frightened by emotion. Anything which challenges,
disturbs or upsets them is pushed into the darker recesses of the
mind and they pretend there is nothing that can be done about it.
Part of the reason is that if they accept something is wrong and
should be changed, it automatically requires something of them,
some action, some change in their life style. And that is simply
too demanding. Young people, on the other hand, believe they have
the power to change things - to change the world.
The two things which motivate them most of all are cruelty to animals
and destruction of the environment. Insultingly, their concerns
are so often dismissed as a fad or fashion by adults with barely
a shred of their knowledge. I say this after having given hundreds
of talks in hundreds of schools and colleges to perhaps tens of
thousands of young people. When they make the decision to become
vegetarian they are frequently put under huge pressure by their
parents and friends and yet many of them sustain their beliefs -
hardly the stuff that fads are made of.
I remember one 15-year-old who came to me in tears. She had listened
to me talk and had watched the video footage of factory farming
and agreed with everything. She knew it to be true - her father
was a pig farmer operating an intensive system. He had refused to
allow her be vegetarian, saying he would have no such thing in his
house. This kind of thing is always a dilemma and any advice or
support that I offered might be interpreted as pitting child against
parent. It is the kind of intervention that has earned me the insult
of being like the "Hitler youth" on several occasions.
I honestly believe that if you start to back away from conflict
there is no point in going on. In fact, it was precisely because
I refused to back away from this type of dilemma which led me to
launch the Convert-a-Parent campaign as Viva's opening shot. It
provided all the information necessary for young people to reassure
their parents that by giving up meat they wouldn't turn into a shrivelled
little weeds or die from malnutrition.
In the case of the pig farmer's daughter, I provided her with what
information and encouragement I could, suggesting tactful ways in
which she might like to handle the situation. Some months later
I received a letter from her saying that she was now vegetarian
and, what's more, her father frequently ate the same meals as her.
The determination and courage it takes to see something like that
through to the end has my total admiration.
So often parents claim their opposition stems from concern for
their children but unfortunately it is often more about control
or inconvenience than it is about concern. Nevertheless, things
are improving and these days the most frequent requests from parents
are for nutritional information and the letters of abuse have become
fairly rare. That marks a huge step forward.
One of the most common allegations made against me by the meat
interests is that I fail to present a balanced picture when I talk
to young people, concentrating on the horror and gore and ignoring
the positive aspects of meat eating. They're right in one respect,
I never speak of the positive aspect, largely because I can't find
any but I never concentrate on the gore.
Shortly after the launch of Viva! I did something which I have
never done before and conducted a three-way school talk with the
NFU (not a union at all but the employers' body) and the MLC. Each
of us put our case and at the end, those in the class who intended
to go vegetarian were asked to put their hands up. About ninety
per cent did so. The input of the farmers lobby made no difference
I conduct school talks in a standard way. I am normally invited
as part of Food Technology or sometimes through PSE (personal and
social education) classes. For the first 20 minutes I show a video,
I then talk for a similar length of time and the take questions.
Over the years I think I have heard almost every possible question
connected with vegetarianism and the main ones are predictable.
What will happen to all the animals? How do you know vegetables
don't feel pain? We're meant to eat meat, aren't we? Where will
I get my protein? Some of them are endearing when they come from
kids but when the same questions are put accusingly by a 50-year-old
MLC spokesman, it verges on the pathetic.
One of the most enlightened and questioning schools I have ever
spoken at was run by an order of nuns. At the end of the talk I
asked the usual question about who intended becoming vegetarian
and 45 out of 50 put their hands up. At the back of the class sat
an extremely old and wrinkled little nun who had listened intently
throughout the hour's talk, her eyes barely ever leaving me.
I had constantly been expecting some kind of intervention from
her but it hadn't happened. As I looked at the forest of young arms
held high in the air I was amazed to see this parched and wrinkled,
almost transparent little arm suddenly begin to rise, hesitantly
at first but then shooting aloft with total conviction. I was delighted.
Perhaps one reason I empathise so much with young people is because
they remind me of my own past battles. I was inclined to court confrontation.
I would sometimes wait until my parents were eating bacon and then
unfold a poster in front of them showing factory-farmed pigs: "That's
what you're eating, how do you feel about it?", I would demand
- or make some other unsubtle comment.
I have a vision of thousands of children throughout the country
carrying out similar guerrilla tactics. Their parents should be
proud of them because it shows a degree of caring and selflessness
that can only benefit the globe.
Every survey in recent years has consistently shown that the proportion
of young people who are vegetarian is considerably higher than the
adult population. I like to think I have played a part in what I
would call their education and what the meat interests undoubtedly
refer to as indoctrination.
Traditionally, the bulk of my energies have gone into explaining
the vegetarian imperatives. It is important to provide people with
attainable goals rather than presenting the entire picture and saying
- this is it, it's all or nothing! Very few people turn from being
meat eaters into vegans, bypassing vegetarianism. The culture shock
is usually too great.
It is important that any step a person takes should be encouraged.
If the first move is to give up battery eggs, that is a step forward;
no longer eating red meat, that is a positive move; cutting out
factory-farmed animals is also an important decision. I do believe
passionately and with total conviction that veganism has to be the
ultimate goal but I am convinced that all steps along that route
are valid and help to save the suffering of animals. If the goal
is presented as an absolute, veganism or nothing, few will bother
to even try and attain it.
Having said that, the cruelty of the dairy industry has traditionally
been ignored by some vegetarian interests but I feel it cannot be
ignored any longer. My own realisation of its importance was sudden
and very close to home - in fact, in the field which adjoins my
I had just been reading a report by the national tourist board
which had carried out a survey amongst American tourists to find
out their likes and dislikes of Britain. Topping their list of disappointments
was the lack of cows in our fields. The survey was conducted in
the early Spring, before most of the cattle had been released from
the imprisonment of their winter sheds.
The tourists had arrived over here expecting to see the agricultural
chequerboard of our countryside dotted with grazing black-and-white
Friesian dairy cows. Had they been here in summer they would have
barely been able to swing a camcorder for the density of cattle,
particularly in Cheshire where I live - a county which is virtually
one huge, intensive dairy farm.
Four pregnant heifers arrived in the field alongside my garden
in mid May. Heavy with calf, they spent the early summer in idyllic
surroundings - a lush meadow bordered by a wood and a meandering
river. When one of them unexpectedly gave birth to a perfect little
calf amidst the long grass one sunny evening, the idyll was complete.
I stood and watched as the mother lovingly licked her offspring
from head to foot, unhurriedly, calmly and with transparent contentment.
Eventually she rose to her feet and gently nudged the little bull
calf to his feet with her muzzle. Age-old instincts were prompting
her to ensure that he was capable of flight if the need arose.
The next day, the farmer and the cowhand arrived in the field and
the idyll was over. The cowhand carefully scooped the calf into
his arms and walked away with him, the heifer following behind without
any need of ropes or tethers, concerned for the welfare of her young.
They disappeared up the lane towards the farmyard and the inevitable
process which was to follow.
After another day of suckling on the colostrum which precedes the
milk flow and which ensures his ability to resist disease, the calf
and its mother were separated as they always are - she to begin
her twice-daily sessions in the milking parlour, he to face life
in a barren shed.
This particular cow, No 324, was unusual in that this was her eighth
calf, making her probably ten years old. It was, I was told, her
last and after she had finished this lactation she would be slaughtered.
Perhaps you could consider her lucky - lucky to have borne eight
calves and had each one removed from her at a day or two old - because
most dairy cows produce no more than two or three calves and are
killed at about five years old. Left to their own devices they would
live for twenty years or more.
The whole business of the pregnancy is about producing milk and
in many ways the calves are simply a by-product. The females are
largely kept to replenish the dairy herd while most of the male
calves are simply not wanted - too scrawny for beef, wrong sex for
milk so good for nothing but veal. There is something particularly
disgusting about a business which is based on such undeniable greed.
The poor old cow produces ten times more milk than her calf could
ever drink but such are the marketing imperatives that all of it
must be extracted for human use even though it may never be consumed
because of the over production. Are we so lacking in compassion
that we must deny even this, most basic of instincts to a creature
which has paid an extremely dear price for its docility?
It is dietary control and genetic manipulation which has led to
this extraordinary output of milk - as much as 35 litres a day,
twice the volume cows were producing only fifty years ago. It carries
with it a cost, all borne by the cow. She has a one in three chance
of her udders secreting pus and painfully swelling with mastitis.
The obviously painful process of forcing antibiotics up her teats
is unsuccessful in controlling the disease. If you look at any herd
going in for milking you will see the huge and unnatural shape of
the cows udders which are a distortion of what they should be. You
will also see that many of the cows limp as a result.
Because of the strain of carrying her ludicrously over-sized udders
and that fact that they distort the natural conformation of her
legs, there is also a one-in-three chance that the cow will develop
painful diseases of the feet, resulting in lameness. They are also
difficult to cure and are frequently left untreated. When a combination
of feet and udders becomes so great it starts to affect the cows
milk yield, she will be sent to slaughter and used for burgers,
school meals, baby foods and other "low-quality" products.
The dairy cow, which appears to have a better deal than most farm
animals, is an extraordinary model of deception. She is worked beyond
her capacity to cope which is why, since the war, the average number
of lactation's has reduced from eight to slightly less than three.
Only three months after giving birth and while still milking heavily,
she will be reimpregnated, usually by artificial insemination. Only
for the last few weeks of her pregnancy will she go dry. For nine
months of every year she carries the double burden of milking and
pregnancy, her udders working ten times harder than they would under
It isn't only mastitis and hock problems which send the dairy cow
to the slaughter house, some go because they are simply worn out
and no longer sufficiently productive for the balance sheet. They
can lose body tissue, a polite way of saying they become emaciated.
The evidence is there in almost every dairy herd.
If you look beyond the scene of apparent tranquillity, particularly
at the hind quarters of grazing animals, you will often see little
more than a skin-covered coat rack. In advanced cases the eyes sink
into the head and the coat becomes rough owing to the lack of moisture
under the skin. This can be associated with a complete breakdown
of the tissues of the udder. In human terms it is the equivalent
of teenager being physically destroyed through the demands made
Now, you would think that in return for this constant and uncomplaining
production-line lifestyle, the dairy cow would earn our thanks.
Not a bit of it. Listen to Dr David Beever, head of ruminant nutrition
and metabolism at the Agricultural & Food Research Council:
"We can look at the efficiency with which a cow is converting
forages into milk energy by looking at the overall energetics (of
the 72,000 calories a cow consumes every day, 19,000 are converted
into milk) and she is not very efficient. I see little evidence
that we are working these cows too hard and if we care to look across
into Europe, and particularly look into the United States, then
we have got cows that are working a lot harder through both genetic
improvement and through nutritional improvements. So I would certainly
not agree that we have got these cows to their limits."
Just for a minute, relish the implications of this little speech.
Paraphrased, what he's saying is that other people treat them worse
than us so we're all right and it's perfectly in order, in fact
necessary, to push an animal to the very brink of its capacity to
cope. The skill is in not pushing it over. In a sentence he has
summed up the modern attitude to life which is increasingly being
applied to human and other animals alike. No care, no compassion,
no concern - you're as good as what you produce and nothing more.
Fortunately, there is a countervailing view and in this instance
it comes from Professor John Webster, head of the department of
animal husbandry at Bristol University:
"The dairy cow is a supreme example of an overworked mother.
She is by some measures the hardest worked of all our farm animals
and it can be scientifically calculated. It is equivalent to a jogger
who goes out for six to eight hours every day, which is a fairly
lunatic pursuit. In fact the only humans who work harder than the
dairy cow are the cyclists in the Tour de France, which is the ultimate
in masochism really." And even they only do it for a couple
of weeks or so.
And as though that was not enough, the government has allowed experimentation
in fifteen herds with a drug called BST (bovine somatotrophin) which
increases a cow's milk yield by 20 per cent. It is a growth hormone
which essentially stimulates the cow into diverting more of its
nutrients into making milk and is injected directly into the animal
on a daily basis. The farms involved in these trials have been kept
secret and the milk produced by the cows has been included in the
public milk supply without any real tests on its safety implications
for humans nor on its implications for the cows.
The use of BST has now stopped in Britain and its future use depends
upon decisions made in the EEC. But who needs BST when the latest
experiments, again in Cheshire, involve breeding from European cows
who can produce double the current output of milk without it?
As for the offspring of these and all other dairy cows, I will
talk about them later in the book.
Previous Chapter | Next